Colouring Between the Lines: Community Art in Stockport

| Maria Passingham

We’re constantly being told that the UK is in a high-street crisis. Large chains are closing branches or dramatically cutting staff, independent retailers are being forced out by high rents, and our convenience-oriented online habits are simply stopping us from venturing into city centres. 

In Stockport, Jane Crowther and Vicky Carr, witnessing the deterioration of their town, decided to act. Working with local artists and the council Open Spaces was born, a community art project injecting creativity and colour into neglected or undesirable pockets, proving that town centres can offer more than just rows of bland shops.

I spoke to the two Founders of Open Spaces, who are both lifelong Stockport residents, to find out how they launched the project and what impact it’s had on the town’s people and businesses.

Why does Stockport have a need for an initiative like Open Spaces? 

We felt that quite a few of the shops in the town centre were disappearing. Independent traders were suffering, but even the bigger mainstays like Marks & Spencer and Topshop have left. The town centre was becoming a place we did not particularly want to go to, or felt like we were still part of, but we still strongly felt proud of the place, and the businesses working hard to do great things there.

The town gradually becoming emptier and emptier, we were hoping to give the public another reason to visit the area that does not involve business or shopping. Of course we very much hope that the retail side of things will pick up, but we believe in order to keep going the town centre has to offer more to people than just shopping, and a big part of that (and of people’s lives) should be the arts and creativity. We feel creativity is a big part of the town’s vibe anyway. 

Tell me about the existing creative scene.

There has been a long history of creativity and creative happenings in the town, largely thanks to the Art School based within Stockport College. Creative people have always gravitated towards Stockport, and we regard this community very affectionately as a group of slightly weird people or outcasts (ourselves included!) that either moved out of the centre of town or didn’t fit in there in the first place – people doing their own thing basically. 

We have found with many similar places that are on the fringes of the city (such as in Salford, where Vicky works) that more risk taking happens. Partly because there is no one around to stop it, and partly because there is none of the restriction attached to funding to make things happen. People just get together and form little pockets of communities. 

How has it been working with local artists?

Working with local artists has been excellent, absolutely our pleasure – a bit of what we expected and so much more. 

We have had great support and interest from local artists from the start, who ‘got’ the area straight away and understood what we were trying to do. The most pleasing thing is that all of this has started conversation about what people want and need from their local town, and also about the systems in place that make things happen or keep things going. 

Many people have been surprised to find that we have the council’s full support, even though we haven’t done anything more complicated than explain what we wanted to do and why, and asked their permission. No money has ever changed hands, and the council have made it quite clear that this sort of project would not be easily doable with the obvious restrictions that come with being a large public body. For a lot of people that we have spoken to, the fact that they support this approach has made the council seem a lot more approachable and human; and has given some local people the motivation to start their own projects, or get involved with existing initiatives and groups. 

Do you have any guidelines, or are artists allowed to create entirely what they want?

Our only artwork guideline is that the artwork is kept family friendly so that everyone can enjoy it. 

We personally prefer bold and abstract, very colourful artwork, but honestly everyone’s response has been different and we have pushed people to try out new things, collaborate, but above all stay true to their own styles. 

Initially, we worked with the council toward their Remembrance Day celebrations, but rather than the artwork feeling restricted by sticking to this theme, it actually made it easier and gave our artists a starting point to bounce off. We just don’t want anything stereotypical; the weirder the better. Stockport has a lot of weird history and folklore hiding away, so we are happy to continue that tradition.

What about the spaces themselves? You mention working with the council, but what about local businesses? 

The spaces themselves are all council properties so far, but we are working to contact private landlords and businesses to help us gain access to other empty spaces in order to decorate the shopfronts. 

We worked with local business Tramp hair salon, pairing them with a local artist to decorate the front of their three-story property on Underbank, which is the biggest and most ambitious thing we have worked on yet. We would love to work with more active businesses in the area, pairing them up with artists in the same way, to try to make all of Underbank a kind of art trail. 

We only work on bits of the shops which are exposed and temporary, like shutters or painting over window vinyl. All the historic features of shops are left as they are, and we really love that contrast of old and new side by side. 

What have you learned so far from running Open Spaces? What’s been your best mistake?

The funniest mistake was probably leaving pots of paint out without covers whilst working on the Underbanks, and some cheeky pigeons came and stepped in the paint and left little 3-toed claw marks all along the pavement in a long, winding trail. 

We have no experience of running this type of project, and although we have always had a very clear vision of what could be, both of us having day-jobs has meant that sometimes the organisation of things is frustratingly slow or stop-start. 

We’ve honed our skills in project coordination with multiple groups of people and purchasing materials. We are slowly getting better at describing the aims of the project and figuring out how to move it forward.

Keep up to date with Open Spaces’ latest work on Twitter.

Photo by Open Spaces

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